The Walmart Effect on Thin Film Solar

When Walmart decides to invest in anything, it gets a lot of notice. When it comes to emerging green technologies the retail giant’s buying decisions can be seen as some sort of validation. That’s certainly the intention behind Walmart’s announcement Monday that it will pay for solar electricity from installations that use thin film solar panels from MiaSole and First Solar (s FSLR), and are installed by SolarCity.

Walmart is hiring SolarCity to install up to 15 megawatts of solar panels at 20-30 locations in California and Arizona. In its press release, Walmart highlighted its cash-rich ability to help lower the costs of the newer of the two technologies: solar panels from MiaSole that use layers of copper, indium, gallium and selenium to convert sunlight into electricity. First Solar, the publicly-traded leader in the thin film solar space, uses cadmium telluride as its semiconductor material.

MiaSole, a Silicon Valley startup that emerged in recent months after a few years of re-engineering its CIGS technology, began commercial shipments in small quantities only late last year. The company, backed by investors including Kleiner Perkins, recently signed a 600-megawatt supply deal with German project developer Juwi Solar.

MiaSole is one of a club of American companies that aim to popularize the use of CIGS thin films. Other members include Stion, SoloPower, Global Solar Energy, Nanosolar, Solyndra and Ascent Solar Technologies.

CIGS solar panels are thinner than conventional, crystalline silicon solar panels. They can forgo the use of glass as a protective layer, making them good candidates for projects that require light-weight equipment. SoloPower, Global Solar and Ascent all recently launched flexible thin films for paving over flat roofs or even integrating into roofing materials.

How much of the 15-megawtt project will use CIGS thin film solar remains to be determined, SolarCity said. Installations at Walmart stores in Mountain View and Stockton already have been completed. The rest of the project is set for completion by the end of 2011. Each installation will provide 20-30 percent of a store’s energy needs, Walmart said. The retailer already had added solar to 31 other sites in California and Hawaii before signing up SolarCity.

SolarCity, based in Foster City, Calif., will own and maintain the systems and sell the solar electricity to Walmart. Both companies declined to disclose the financial terms of the deal. First Solar has been a supplier to Walmart for some time, and the solar maker announced a $25 million investment in SolarCity in October 2008.

SolarCity has managed to attract a lot of investments to grow its business, including $90 million from U.S. Bancorp and $60 million from Pacific Venture Capital (part of PG&E Corp.) to finance residential and commercial installations.  Back in May, it announced it had bought the assets of Building Solutions, an energy efficiency equipment and service provider, in order to beef up its offerings beyond solar electric systems. At the time, SolarCity said the acquisition will allow it to sell products in lighting, cooling, water heating, among others, that help to a home and business use electricity more efficiently and save money in the process.

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Image courtesy of Miasole.